Mark Ritson: Sustainability, diversity, purpose? Marketing should practice what it’s trying to preach
The World Federation of Advertisers last week held a conference focused on sustainability, diversity and purpose. Professor Mark Ritson told them that millionaires on stage talking about brand purpose in the “least diverse, least trusted industry on the planet” are “dislocated from reality”. Brands and their parent companies should instead get real, stop dodging taxes and start planning beyond their next quarterly earnings to stand a chance of becoming part of the solution.
What you need to know:
- Marketers and brands need to be more Tom Hollander, less Orlando Bloom.
- Sustainability and diversity need to be applied internally more than externally.
- Companies that aggressively minimise tax can hardly talk about purpose.
- Most people don't really care. They have bills to pay, kids to feed.
- It's time to get real.
The ad industry started out normal, but in recent times has been “dramatically and ridiculously mutating,” according to marketing professor turned mini MBA purveyor Mark Ritson.
“I think we’re losing it. We’re increasingly full of shit and despised as a result of our dislocation from our reality and our roots.”
Ritson effectively told the World Federation of Advertisers’ Global Marketer Week conference that marketing’s current obsession with sustainability, diversity and purpose – the conference’s three themes – is hypocritical “bullshit” and that nobody believes what advertisers say anyway.
Marketing, he said, must focus on its own sustainability and diversity if it wants to survive long term.
“I am not being critical of the WFA. Those three themes – sustainability, diversity and marketing as part of the solution – are super important and I support and applaud them. But if you look at the state of our industry, we have a lot more to worry about closer to home.”
Ritson pointed to plummeting ad effectiveness, with IPA data highlighting that the ads winning the most awards are less and less effective. Perhaps worse, the industry, in dishing out awards to ineffective work, doesn’t even see the problem.
In tandem, short termism is increasing, “which is a terribly dangerous thing for brand building and ad effectiveness”, said Ritson, while social media has seemingly industrialised induction of marketing “charlatans and philistines … and it’s doing dramatic damage to the discipline”.
Worse still, trust can’t get any lower. Per Ipsos Mory’s ‘Veracity Index’, advertising ranks lowest, below real estate agents, politicians… even journalists.
“Marketing fundamentals are in free fall. We’re going backwards,” said Ritson. To become part of the solution, he urged marketers to apply the WFA’s three themes of sustainability, diversity and purpose to themselves.
There are lots of companies claiming to be purpose-driven. But we have a wonderful test, called tax, which shows most companies to be entirely purposeless when it comes to behaving in line with their stated promises.
For marketers aiming to deliver sustainable growth, effectiveness gurus Les Binet & Peter Field have done the hard yards. They have even formulated the optimum brand versus performance investment ratios by category, for example, 60:40 brand to performance in CPG.
“But in reality, no company gets anywhere near that ratio,” said Ritson. “And the reason is sustainability – not sustainability of the planet, but sustainability [or lack of] in advertising and marketing thinking. We are getting more and more short term.”
Ritson pointed to data from the IPA and Financial Times that shows big companies shrinking marketing reporting cycles while LinkedIn’s B2B Institute found only 4% of b2b marketers measure campaigns beyond six months – and 75% finish their optimisation within the first two weeks.
“[That shows] marketers don’t look at the world in a sustainable long-term way," said Ritson. Fixated on the short term, they will keep repeating the same mistakes. “It’s Groundhog Day.”
He urged marketers that seek genuine sustainable growth to channel the great management thinker, Peter Drucker: “You have to produce results in the short term. But you also have to produce results in the long term. And the long term is not simply adding up the short terms.”
Ritson drew a parallel between the ad industry’s lack of diversity (mostly high socioeconomic backgrounds, high prevalence of private education) with its approach to channel planning.
“That study found that not by spending more, but by spreading the money across multiple channels, advertisers always saw a synergy: Diversity always wins over channel apartheid. Diversity makes campaigns work better just like it makes marketing departments and companies work better,” said Ritson. “We should learn that lesson.”
Brands are not big things. Nobody really cares about our brands or our purpose and more often than not, I believe purpose takes us in the wrong direction,
“All of the people that get up on stage and talk about ‘the power of purpose’ are millionaires – literally,” said Ritson. “Most working men and women don’t have those broad dreams. Their purpose is to pay the mortgage; afford health insurance; feed the kids. Unfortunately, we have become an industry that is above the consumers that we serve.”
Purpose, he said, must pass the “three Cs test”. That is: does the customer want it; can the company deliver it; can we do it better than the competition?
While purpose may or may not pass the customer test, Ritson said the company aspect is more straightforward.
“There are lots of companies claiming to be purpose-driven. But we have a wonderful test, called tax, which shows most companies to be entirely purposeless when it comes to behaving in line with their stated promises.”
Meanwhile, Covid’s advertising sea of sameness, "tinkly pianos, people looking out of windows, telling customers you feel their pain", casts serious doubt on whether most brands have the ability to do things vastly different to their competitors.
“Brands are not big things. Nobody really cares about our brands or our purpose and more often than not, I believe purpose takes us in the wrong direction," said Ritson.
“Yes sustainability and diversity are incredibly important, and marketing has to be part of the solution. But let's also worry about the challenges of marketing. We need to get back to work,” said Ritson. “Let’s be more real.”
Who passes the test?
Ritson picked out Unilever as a company that passes the “three C” test.
“They are the real deal. They pay their taxes, astonishingly so. They walk the walk. They believe in what they are doing. Their brands are genuinely a force for good – and they are commercially successful.”
He called out Starbucks as a “purpose bullshitter”.
“They’ve been talking for ten years about building communities, yet they have been doing an astonishing if entirely legal job of minimising tax.”
He added “all oil companies” to that list.
”They are all talking about the future. But all of them are doing 99% of their profits from fossil fuels, and we need to call them out,” said Ritson.
“There are good men and women working for these companies – and they are too good to work for them any more. Marketing is part of the problem in those companies. Marketing is a real problem, because it is obfuscating what is going on.”
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